‘Star Wars’ meets reality? Military testing laser weapons

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Are we finally witnessing the dawn of the “death ray”?

Five decades after the creation of the laser, the ubiquitous technology of the modern era may be ready to serve up that Star Wars science-fiction staple: the laser blaster.

Advances in the technology have made it possible for military testers to shoot down incoming mortar rounds with land-based lasers, and military commanders are on the verge of being able to fire laser blasts from the air that could be aimed at tanks or mines.

“We literally are the invisible death ray, let me tell you,” says Mike Rinn of Boeing’s Airborne Laser Program in Seattle, a missile- defense effort, one among dozens of Defense Department-supported “directed energy” programs run by military contractors such as Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

“This beam is invisible to the naked eye; you can’t see it.”

Taking advantage of some simple physics, lasers have allowed humanity to harness light to cut holes in things and establish new forms of communication. The light from a light bulb or the sun, an unbunched blur of multiple wavelengths, is warm to our touch and can burn. Lasers’ lenses focus the power of light into a tightly bunched beam to burn surfaces with fine accuracy. And the laser can read bar codes on consumer products and digitized recordings on DVDs and CDs by bouncing finely focused beams off surfaces and using a “photodiode” sensor to read variations in reflected light as a code.

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